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Western United CEO Explains How The New A-League Club Found Success During COVID-19

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peaking to Ministry of Sport, Western United CEO, Chris Pehlivanis, discussed how Western United found success in the midst of a global pandemic and gave advice to sporting clubs around Australia on how to survive COVID-19.

Pehlivanis said despite the challenges presented to the new A-League club and the rest of the league in 2020, a shift in commercial strategy helped ensure the success of the club both on and off the field.

“In terms of COVID-19, I don’t think anyone could have been prepared, however, ultimately what it did was give us an opportunity to take a deep breath as a start-up,” Pehlivanis told Ministry of Sport.

“That was a positive out of COVID because it gave us an opportunity to just hone in on what’s important.

“It put everyone on a bit of an even playing field especially for last season and ensured on the field it was pretty much an even playing field, other than the clubs that were based in Sydney as the rest of the league had to relocate there.

“COVID-19, from the commercial side, poses a lot of different challenges for a lot of businesses, a lot of businesses had to lay off staff and put a lot of people on JobKeeper.

“Finding the ability from a commercial point of view, let alone the moral point of view, to sponsor a club, created a lot of difficulties.

“However, we saw it as an opportunity to target a lot of industries that potentially weren’t as impacted by COVID-19 or businesses that thrived in that environment.

“It meant you had to be a bit more strategic in your prospecting, and we were also very lucky that a lot of our partners stayed on with us and are on this journey for the long-term not the short-term,” he said.

Talking about the plans for Western United’s new home, Wyndham Stadium, which has been launched with the concept of value capture, meaning when the stadium is built, the club will solely own Wyndham Stadium, Pehlivanis said: “Having your own stadium is an enormous achievement, we will become the first A-League club, and probably the first of most professional sports clubs, to own its own stadium.”

“Commercially, it allows you to capture a significant amount of every dollar that goes into that stadium, compared to if it was a leased environment.

“We will then have the ability to control our own destiny and really drive the commercial revenues greater than any other club.

“I think that’s going to create a great competitive advantage.

“It also means our fans will have their own home, their own purpose-built stadium for their club and for their home, which is an amazing achievement for fans to have their own stadium in Western Melbourne, but also lets them know, that’s their stadium, we don’t share it, we don’t do anything else there, that’s our fortress,” he said.

When asked what the A-League’s recent split from the control of Football Australia (FA) means for the newer clubs like Western United, Pehlivanis said it is crucial the league doesn’t sever its working relationship with FA.

“For everyone in the game now, the split from FA gives us a bit of fresh air, it gives us the ability to control our own destiny,” Pehlivanis said.

“When we talk about the split from FA, we still need to work with them; they are a very significant stakeholder in the game, and it’s important we get that right as well, so we don’t disengage with one of the most important stakeholders in the game.

“But it does create opportunities for private investment, it does create an opportunity for us to create our own destiny and it does create an opportunity to grow that commercial revenue for the game.

“It also allows us to be a lot more nimble, which is also very important in an ever-evolving industry that continues to change every day.

“The split will be very positive longer term, but we’ve also got to work with the key stakeholders to ensure we grow this game we all love.

“We are in a good place on and off the field, and there’s an opportunity to continue to grow the game, grow a league and grow the Western United brand.

“There’s a really good opportunity for us to really own Western Melbourne and for everyone in the region to support Western United,” he said.

On what Western United hope to achieve off the field over 2021 and the coming years in the recovery from COVID-19, Pehlivanis said: “Off the field, our goals for this season and probably the next couple of seasons, number one is to deliver our stadium.”

“We’re aiming to grow our fan base and membership base; we had 5,700 members last year, we’re looking to get to 7,500 this year.

“Commercially, we had a target to grow our commercial base, even through the COVID environment we’ve achieved that, and in recent weeks we’ve announced several new sponsors.

“Commercially, we’re having a really good run.

“Another significant objective for this season is to secure our W-League license, that’s a major objective to get going and hopefully we will have that ready for next season,” he said.

When asked what advice he would give to any sporting organisation in Australia trying to not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but to come out on the other end in a better position than it entered, Pehlivanis said short-term goals and objectives help to achieve more results.

“The advice I would give and what worked for us, is take COVID serious, make sure you follow the protocols, and make sure you look after your staff, number one,” Pehlivanis told Ministry of Sport.

“Number two is you can’t look too much forward, but you need to focus on your short-term objectives and make sure they are communicated around the organisation, so everyone stays focused and engaged on short-term objectives.

“Objectives evolve so you need to be nimble because things are going to change.

“Your fixtures are going to change, your ability to play, to go to the office might change.

“To have your focus only on longer-term objectives, is in my opinion, something I wouldn’t recommend.

“Keep it simple, keep close to your people, and have some short-term objectives that everyone in the organisation is aware of, and keep the communication fluid,” he said.